The bile ducts are part of a collection of organs and tubes that make and store bile to be released into the small intestine. The bile ducts are small tubes that transport digestive bile from the liver to the gallbladder and the small intestine.
Bile duct cancer, known as cholangiocarcinoma, is a rare type of cancer that forms in the bile ducts. When tumors impact the function of the bile ducts, it is essential to determine if the bile duct tumor is benign or malignant.
Types of Bile Duct Cancer
- Intrahepatic: Cancer formation within the bile ducts of the liver. This is a rare form of bile duct cancer.
- Extrahepatic: More commonly, these bile duct cancers form outside the liver. Perihilar bile duct cancer involves the hilum where the right and left bile ducts come together as the common hepatic duct. Distal bile duct cancer affects the common bile duct stretching through the pancreas and the small intestine.
Risk Factors and Causes of Bile Duct Cancer
Several risk factors make it more likely for a patient to develop bile duct cancer. That said, these cancers are rare, so having risk factors does not necessarily lead to cancer itself. Common risk factors include
- Ulcerative Colitis or UC
- Bile duct cysts
- Certain parasitic infections
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis
In each case above, the risk factors cause inflammation and infection of the bile duct, leading to higher cancer risk.
The Signs and Symptoms of Bile Duct Cancer
The following are common signs and symptoms of bile duct cancer; however other abdominal conditions and diseases share can share many of these symptoms. It is essential that you visit a qualified medical professional to evaluate symptoms and offer a definitive diagnosis.
- Pain in the abdomen
- Unexplained weight loss
- Dark urine
- Itchy skin
- Light-colored stool
Treatment of Bile Duct Cancer
Early treatment for bile duct cancer is critical to ensuring the most successful outcomes. As such, patients who are at risk for bile duct cancer should coordinate with their medical team regularly, as prescribed, to ensure appropriate screening.
Surgery is the primary way to address bile duct cancer. A surgeon relies on imaging and can perform a laparoscopic procedure to examine cancer’s spread closely. Several potential surgeries can be employed, depending on where the tumor is located and how it has spread.
- Bile duct removal involves cutting away part of the bile duct if the tumor is small and contained in the bile duct itself. Lymph nodes may also be removed and evaluated. Learn more about bile duct removal.
- Partial hepatectomy is a surgery to remove a part of the liver that includes the cancerous legion. How much of the liver is removed will depend on the extent that the cancer is affecting it. A small area of healthy tissue known as the margin is also removed to ensure that cancer has been excised. Learn more about a partial hepatectomy.
- A Whipple procedure involves removing the head of the pancreas and part of the stomach and small intestine, the gallbladder, and the bile duct. Learn more about The Whipple Procedure
Chemotherapy and radiation may follow the surgical procedure depending on your oncologist’s assessment. Some patients may require a liver transplant. If the tumor cannot be removed surgically, known as unresectable bile duct cancer, specific palliative procedures can be performed to improve quality of life while patients undergo other therapies.